Following a visit from animal control, 76-year-old Renetta DeBlase was forced to give up 23 of her cats, which she took in off the streets. DeBlase was allegedly told they would be given homes, but later discovered 22 of them had been euthanized. (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Renetta DeBlase always let her 28 cats roam her old red-brick house in Maryland. The 76-year-old retired book editor didn’t mind the smell of cat urine or the expense of caring for so many animals.

Then one cold night this month, her radiator broke and water gushed, flooding the Hyattsville home. She called the fire department for help. When firefighters rushed in to turn off the water, they saw the cats and reported the house to Prince George’s County animal control.

A few days later, animal control officers went to DeBlase’s home and removed 23 cats that a county official said were living in “deplorable conditions.” Twenty-two of those cats were euthanized, setting off a furor that has pitted DeBlase and her allies in the cat rescue community against county officials who described the felines as “aggressive and totally unsocialized.”

DeBlase — author of the 2011 book “With Stars in My Eyes,” the tale of her years promoting jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor — disagrees.

“They murdered those cats,” she said last week, resting on a twin rollaway bed in her sparse living room. A half-eaten plate of cat food sat on a wooden coffee table not far from a litter box in the corner. Strips of plaster tape hang from the ceiling. And the smell of cat urine lingered. DeBlase still has five cats roaming the house.

Renetta DeBlase poses for a photograph at her home on Jan. 21 in Hyattsville. Prince George's County animal control removed 23 cats from her home and let her keep five. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The cats that were seized had been neutered and micro­chipped by Alley Cat Rescue, a nonprofit group based in Mount Rainier. DeBlase contends that the county was required to scan the cats for chips and notify Alley Cat Rescue before euthanizing them.

“The shelter failed to do this and proceeded to kill a variety of beautiful cats and kittens, ages 8 months to 5 years, and many were tame and all were worth saving,” said DeBlase, who added that “one of the officers threatened to fine me $500 if he ever saw me leave food on my front porch for a few ferals living outside and thus subject them to starvation.”

County officials rebut those allegations. Linda Lowe, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s Department of the Environment, which oversees the county’s animal management operation, said DeBlase was never threatened. The cats were removed from the house with DeBlase’s permission and signed consent, she said.

“This is the timeline,” Lowe said. On Jan. 10, firefighters went to the house in response to a call for help. They found “an abundance of cats in the home,” she said, “and the living conditions for the cats were deplorable.”

On Jan. 13, two animal control officers went to the house and asked whether DeBlase needed assistance. “She was willing to sign the cats over,” Lowe said.

Fifteen of those cats were deemed “aggressive and totally unsocialized” and immediately euthanized, Lowe said. After working with the remaining cats, seven more were put down two days later. Only one cat was responsive to caretakers and saved.

All county legal protocols were followed, Lowe maintained. The cats were not checked for microchips, she said, “because it was owner-surrender” — “It is assumed this is the person who owned the cats.”

Paperwork states that 23 cats were removed because there were too many cats in the home in Hyattsville. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

DeBlase acknowledged that she signed a surrender form but said she did so because “the man said they would try to find homes for as many cats as possible.”

Advocates for feral cats have rushed to defend DeBlase and condemn the deaths of her strays.

“These cats were killed instead of allowing rescuers — who put their dollars, raw blood, sweat, tears into saving lives — to rescue these cats,” said Denise Hilton, director of operations for Alley Cat Rescue. “We are all distraught over what happened.”

Alley Cat Rescue, which was founded in 1997, has come to the aid of thousands of cats. Hundreds of volunteers care for feral cats, feeding, watering and neutering them and then releasing them back into their neighborhoods. Sterilized cats have their ears clipped to indicate that they have gone through this process.

DeBlase volunteered for the group, helping to care for strays in her neighborhood. Three years ago, she took in four or five feral cats, and those cats had litters. Three generations of those cats were living in her house.

They perched on windowsills, hid under beds, roamed freely. She fed them and gave them names including Domina, Bianca, Checkers, Allegra, Buffy, Muffin, Mimi I and Mimi II.

DeBlase, who had double hip surgery two years ago, said the cats gave her comfort. She denies that they were living in deplorable conditions or that she’s a hoarder.

“Hoarding is when people have some type of mental imbalance,” she said. “And animal control goes in there, and they find dead carcasses and horrible conditions. Here, they found beauties.” Her cats, she argued, “were in perfect health, received medical care when needed, and tested negative for serious illnesses.”

“The only reason they took the cats was because there were too many,” DeBlase said.

Ashley Mauceri, manager of animal cruelty response with the Humane Society of the United States, said there is no numerical threshold for someone to be defined as a hoarder.

“Hoarding is defined not by specific number, but an individual’s failure to recognize he or she can no longer care for the animals in his or her care,” she said. “It’s not that if you have the number 20 or 30, you become a hoarder. It is more that you fail to realize you can’t care for the animals you have and continue to acquire more.”

The most extreme case of hoarding she’s encountered involved 700 cats in a Florida home, she said.

In the Washington area, the most notorious case occurred 10 years ago when animal control officers hauled 488 cats — 222 of them dead — out of a Northern Virginia home. Ruth Knueven, 82, was charged with five misdemeanors, including animal cruelty.

But most hoarding cases do not involve numbers that large. Rodney Taylor, associate director of the Prince George’s animal management division, said the county encounters three to four major hoarding cases per year.

“These are cases where an individual believes they are being a good Samaritan and doing a good thing, by taking these poor hungry animals in and feeding and caring for them, even though most of them are not socialized,” he said. “Most of the time we become aware of these cases through the fire or police department or through social service agencies who have gone to the home for other reasons.”

About three years ago, he said, the county removed more than 100 cats from a home where the owner had died.

DeBlase said she is in mourning for the cats that were taken from her and treasures the five that remain. Sitting like a shadow on a windowsill was a cat that had hidden from the animal control officers.

“You know how in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the Cheshire Cat is always smiling and disappears when it feels like it is in trouble?” she asked. “That’s what this cat did.”